Film Review: First Girl I Loved

When you are a teenager, having a crush can be truly agonising and all-consuming. It’s equal parts thrill and terror when your feelings are reciprocated, as you innocently try to work out how to turn those feelings into a relationship. But, if you happen to be a heterosexual couple while you’re navigating all this, there are endless guides on how you should act and your partnership is symbolically celebrated every day in songs, TV shows and movies. That’s why a First Girl I Loved is unusual, and so very welcome. Unlike 99.9% of films produced on the topic of love, it is unashamedly gay, even as it works through how shame feels if you are gay.

Written and directed by Kerem Sanga, First Girl I Loved is a smart, affirming film about teenage love. Dylan Gelula  plays Anne, who has fallen for senior cool-girl/softball star Sasha, played by Brianna Hildebrand. We follow Anne and Sasha as they try and figure out what the unspoken spark between them might mean, and what it could possibly lead to. Anne’s best friend Clifton, played by Mateo Arias, complicates the story with his own feelings for Anne spilling out in dangerous ways.

FirstGirlILoved_Promotional_Still_AN_CL_stairsWhile the closure of the film was a little clunky (and I wondered if they actually had a few different endings in mind), overall First Girl I Loved is utterly engrossing. The opening scenes are framed tightly and closely around the protagonists, and we remain at eye level, almost as if we are right there with them – behind the softball fence, lingering at the doorway to the bedroom, walking down the street sipping $4 wine. We’re next to them all the way, not as a voyeur, but as a friend along for the ride.

26-first-girl-i-loved.w1200.h630Gelula’s performance is very commendable. She strikes a delicate balance between unbearable apathetic teen, and captivating hero that we want to succeed. Through Anne we see just how brilliant and strong teens can be, even if they’re totally clueless. Teens are often denigrated by society writ-large for being naive, but First Girl I Loved shows the pain and beauty of fumbling through, the intelligence involved in not knowing but pushing on nonetheless. The awkward innocence of Anne and Sasha’s interactions is wonderfully executed, and there was something so familiar about their veiled giggling banter that I felt like I was watching my young self up on screen.

1As I sat watching the film unfold, I found myself desperately wanting things to work out for the characters. I wanted it to end happily not only because I was so engrossed in the story, but because happy endings for gay characters are so few and far between. It’s been great to see more films coming out that address romance between women, like Lovesong in 2016 or Carol in 2015, but many remain stories about tortured, impossible love, or a love that’s always on the horizon that we never get to see fully flourish. That’s why Imagine Me & You from 2005 is still one of the greatest lesbian romance films – not only does it relish in the genre of romcom rather than locating gayness in the seriousness of arthouse, but it moves through unspoken desire to love shouted from the rooftops.

First.Girl_.I.Loved-szn1While I can imagine some queer theorists arguing that the lack of traditionally happy endings for gay films is welcome, because who wants to live up to that heteronormative expectation anyway, it’s also pretty shit to constantly have popular culture either ignore your relationship or portray it is an inevitably difficult affair. While there is something to be said for representing the reality of homophobia and the difficulty of queer life, it is a pain that everyone else gets the option of fantasy (because let’s be real it’s not like heterosexual life really ends happily for everyone) except for gays who must remain proper realists.

The-First-Girl-I-LovedFirst Girl I Loved is no romcom, and it is serious. But it does manage to deal with difficult issues and give us a sense of both catharsis and hope, even as it leaves many things unresolved. It doesn’t make the empty promise that so many teens are barraged with that “it gets better”, but it does suggest that queer kin can be found and that inner strength is possible while traversing difficult and unknown terrain. First Girl I Loved gifts its audience a small beam of light for navigating this path, and for that it should be celebrated.

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Give Drag a Chance

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Priscilla, queen of my heart

When I was a little girl, I loved drag queens more than anything. It was back in the days when video stores were still around, and my babysitter asked me which film I wanted to rent. Of course I said Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which was my absolute favourite as an eight year old, and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it already. By the end of the film she was rather shocked, but I remember thinking thank god I am a girl. My thought was that if I had been a boy I would have had to be a drag queen, and things would have been really tough. To me being a feminine as a girl was like being a drag queen too, you just didn’t get hate for it.

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Paris is Burning

Priscilla, and films like Paris is Burning before it, helped to make drag intelligible to a mainstream audience. Today RuPaul’s Drag Race continues to work that magic, bringing a greater awareness of drag culture as well as a diversity of queens into the spotlight with each season.

But even though everyone is watching Drag Race, word on the street for those in the know is that you’ve got to be a bit careful because drag queens are, well, a bit of a drag. So the story goes, drag queens—at least those “normy” hyper-feminine ones—are just reinforcing every stereotype of womanhood that feminism has ever fought against.

Strangely this critique of drag comes from two, usually wildly oppositional, directions within discussions of gender.

578579The first is from trans-exclusionary radical feminist types, who conflate gay male culture with drag queens with transgender identity. Such perspectives see gay men, drag queens, and trans women as responsible for propping up fantasies of femininity that only serve to oppress women. Germaine Greer famously stated in The Female Eunuch 1970: “I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate”. Greer’s suggestion here is that there is some form of “natural” womanhood that can be liberated from the dictates of culture. Similarly, and more recently, Sheila Jeffreys has even argued that drag kings distort lesbian culture and the celebration of “natural” womanhood. She writes: “If the suffering and destruction of lesbians is to be halted then we must challenge the cult of masculinity that is evident in such activities as drag king shows”. These views are rife with homophobia and transphobia, as well as massive conflations and wild leaps that see men, masculinity, and femininity, as the true oppressors of women.

license-shutterstock_178095647z-56cddde63df78cfb37a34dedI don’t have much time for these views, which encourage us to believe that the biggest threats to women are trans women, drag queens, and gay men. This view distorts Marxist theory to argues that men in particular are *the* class that oppresses women, and sees the liberation that is to be won as a liberation from “gender”. Luckily the currency of radical feminism in academic spaces seems to be waning. But when overall activist struggle in society is low, it is easy for people to slip into arguing that we are each other’s problem, that if only we could free ourselves from gender we’d be truly liberated. It’s a much easier argument to make than organising to transform the fundamental economic arrangement of society, and it makes space for all kinds of class collaboration between powerful women and poor women alike (even if it means at the end of the day that power doesn’t actually shift).

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I heart Judy B 4eva

Understandably in many queer critical circles, no one has much time for radical feminism. For example Judith Butler—our queer theory queen writ large—has openly critiqued Jeffreys, describing her views on trans women as a “feminist tyranny”. At the end of Gender Trouble (1990) Butler famously held drag queens up as exemplars of gender subversion. There was of course a lot of responses to this, but much of these debates focused on whether drag really was the best example of the theory of gender performativity that Butler was proposing.

herofille2So that’s why it’s kind of surprising to hear people within queer communities suggesting now that drag, in its mainstream formations, is a problem. From this perspective drag, if performed by ostensibly cis males, reproduces misogynistic ideas of femininity and is really just another expression of the “gay-triarchy“. Drag that is seen as more alternative in these scenes is drag performed by faux-queens (women performing as drag queens), or drag that queers gender in some way, like the intense influx of bearded-queens we’ve seen in recent years.

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I love Sasha but I don’t doubt we occupy the same ivory tower

Within the land of RuPaul, this desire for more alternative drag to address the “problems” of drag culture is summed up by Sasha Velour. Now, there is no way that I am not #TeamSasha, obviously I love Sasha. But she also represents an extremely mobile, well-educated subset of drag culture, who can quote Butler and play with the expectations of drag (like, having a bald head) because let’s face it, they’re still going to get by even if they don’t win $100,000.

What the queer critique of drag shares with the radical feminist perspective is the view that we are one another’s oppressors, and that if we manage to transform our individual gendered selves in a particular way, this can contribute to liberation. For the rad fems this might mean rejecting expectations of femininity and trying to embody “natural” womanhood. From the queer perspective this might mean rejecting anything perceived as mainstream and normative. The conclusions are the same: do your politics through your body, and reject those individuals who don’t.

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The cast of Season 9

Let’s pause here to imagine why someone might get into drag (noting that the great thing about Drag Race is that we get to hear some of these reasons). For some, drag offers a space to play around with femininity, after growing up as a “weird” kid who didn’t meet the expectations of masculinity. For others, drag is a way of working through questions of sexual and/or gender identity. For many that have been kicked out of home or found themselves rejected by society at large, drag offers a space for new forms of family to emerge.

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Drag queens can be comrades too

For many, drag is a mode of survival, socially and economically. Drag queens struggle with expectations around femininity too. Drag queens don’t oppress women: the struggle against sexism is a shared one. There is a lot to be learned from RuPaul’s constant reminder that “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”.

So, let’s celebrate those drag queens that can push boundaries and show us new ways to think about gender, but let’s embrace those “normy” queens too. This doesn’t mean everything in drag culture should be immune from critique, but it does mean we should give drag a chance. After all, the struggle is best won together, not alone, and drag queens are not the enemy.

Nostalgia, Taste & Looking Backward

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Nostalgia: it’s all the rage

The desire for nostalgia is a funny thing. Studies have found that you’re more likely to seek out nostalgia when you’re feeling down, particularly when you are lonely. Perhaps that’s why society seems to have been on a full-tilt nostalgia trip for some time now: everyone is feeling pretty bummed out about the future to come, and under late neoliberal capitalism more isolated individualistic-thinking than ever before. Here we might turn to Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie to help us. Anomie describes the state of singularity and disconnection felt as a symptom of modernity and rapid social change—anomic societies are highly individualistic and fractured. It would be interesting to take up Durkheim’s analyses of anomic societies here and see just how much financial crises and social upheavals correlate with, say, the sale of Hanson tickets.

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Hanson: still looking twelve years old

Going to a concert on a Monday night is strange at the best of times, and this week was certainly a bit odd when I found myself at the anniversary tour of 90s teen-pop boy-band sensation, Hanson. My friend Patrick contacted me months ago to ask me if I wanted to go, and we managed to secure tickets even though the first show had sold out in seconds. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to get a good old dose of nostalgia. But perhaps my initial response to “Do you want to go to Hanson?”—”Lol maybe!”—should have triggered me to remember: when you were a kid you didn’t actually like Hanson.

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90s band Steps

Here’s the thing: I didn’t actually like Hanson. I was in year five when they got big (feel free not to do the math on that). I had just moved from a small city to a very small town, and everything I knew about what was cool, and what was what, needed to adjust. I had grown up listening to the national youth radio channel Triple J, and that was my cultural world. When I was eight (again, no math please), I remember being shocked when Kurt Cobain’s death was announced on the radio. That year was also my first concert, the Icelandic singer Bjork’s Post tour. But when I found myself in a small town (at least, in this particular small town), I found out that liking so-called “alternative” music was so not cool. Everyone was into surfing and dancing and hanging out at the beach listening to S.O.A.P. I distinctly remember being invited to a birthday party of a girl in my class and everyone knew the dance moves to 5, 6, 7, 8 by the band Steps, except for me of course. I needed to learn, and I needed to learn fast.

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Smash Hits magazine was extremely useful for getting in the know

Luckily my new friend Sally who lived across the road from me knew what was what. And she was obsessed with Hanson. Sally was what they call a “completist“—someone who collects every version of every album and single and other paraphernalia released by a band. In Sally’s case this also extended to buying every magazine and newspaper that featured Zac, Taylor, or Isaac, even if it was a picture of them she already had. Her room was a shrine, perfectly plastered in a way only achievable by meticulously obsessive tweenagers. Sally’s love for Hanson eclipsed any faint glimmer of feeling I might muster myself. Plus, she owned Hanson. Zac specifically.

Nevertheless, Hanson was my gateway drug to the Top 40. I started taping songs off the radio (as you did in those days), and started listening to songs from Aqua, Spice Girls, and Savage Garden. I changed my taste, as much as I could, so at the very least I could get it when the year six girls performed to Backstreet’s Back  (though where they were back from I’m still not clear) in the school talent contest, to a standing ovation. I was the Cady Heron, finally able to say “I know this song!” and I could respond “I’m Posh Spice” when someone asked me how I fitted into the scheme of things.

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Jordan “Taylor” Hanson

As a skinny nerdy kid with a single mother, monobrow and noticeably second-hand school uniform, pop taste could only help me pass so much. But vindication came in year six when Sally and I performed to Hanson’s Man from Milwaukee (we had to choose this song, as Zac sung it) and we won one of the prizes. “Good job” said my crush outside the canteen, licking a chocolate Paddle Pop. “Really nice” he said, as he brushed aside his Hanson-esque long hair. Pop music was the ticket.

That was, until I was in my mid twenties, dating a musician. This was the period wherein I learned that liking pop music was so not cool. According to this theory, if it wasn’t from Seattle in the 1990s, or wasn’t electronic music created while taking a lot of stimulants, it wasn’t really music. I made mix tapes out of love but they were met with derision. I also learned that a lot of this attitude was just thinly veiled sexism and elitism. How could a woman pop singer possibly be a talented musician? Obviously that bad romance didn’t last, and I decided to embrace pop music more vehemently. But in hindsight I had spent so long worrying about taste and how to achieve it, that I had forgotten what I even liked about music in the first place.

All of this ran through my head on Monday night as I listened to the epic two-hour set from Hanson, which it turns out, is an ample amount of time for 20 years’ worth of triggered memories. I had come for nostalgia, but I had instead been faced with two decades’ worth of feelings around my inadequacies in taste.

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Heather Love’s Feeling Backward

The whole thing reminded me of the point that Heather Love makes in her book Feeling Backward: we can’t always “move on” from bad experiences, in fact, it might be worth dwelling awhile in some of these feelings to see how the past is still playing out. As Love states: “It is the damaging aspects of the past that tend to stay with us, and the desire to forget may itself be a symptom of haunting”. Love is talking specifically about the feelings that haunt LGBTQ communities in thinking about the past and the need to attend to, rather than forsake, these memories. But this might also be a lesson for everyone: embrace feeling backward, remember the pain of being a misfit or misunderstood that you’d rather forget. In these memories we might learn something about who we have become, rather than looking for a fantasy hit of nostalgia that can’t ever really deliver us from the present.

Brooke Candy and the Question of Queer Femininity

I think we ought to treat pop stars as philosophers (as constructed as they are), citing them in our papers for their insights on the nature of existence and revealing to us the pulse and contradictions of dominant culture. But we must proceed with caution: like all philosophers, pop stars are often deeply problematic. On this note, I think LA rapper/singer Brooke Candy is worth exploring. She shows how all art is appropriation, but is a reminder that cashing in on subordinate cultures is vastly different from trying to rip open a norm from the inside out. She’s also an interesting case for what she does (and doesn’t) show us about the queer potential of femininity.

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Brooke Candy (left) in Grimes’ (right) video for “Genesis

Candy provides the kind of sexual, aggressive, high-femme, esoteric visuals that follow firmly in the tradition of the mega-pop-queens before her, like Lady Gaga and Madonna. However when she first came onto the scene in 2012 with her clip for “Das Me” she was called out for cultural appropriation, along with others like Miley Cyrus who appeared to be cashing in on black culture.

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Candy in “Das Me”

Candy’s stylisation referencing black culture was focused on at the time, but we might also note Candy’s fetishisation of disability as shown in the frame below, which is also clearly referencing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi. As in many cases where cultural appropriation is pointed out, Candy’s would-be fans challenged her to try and speak from her own position instead.

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The woman pushing Candy along here seems to be saying to the director “Really? You don’t see how many levels of wrong this is?”

However, the problem with the demand to “speak only for yourself” is that it’s difficult figuring out what that should (or can) look like. How can we avoid appropriation in art when culture circulates in endlessly reverberating ways in a globalised world? After all, the postmodern turn taught us that truth is multiple, and that meaning ought not be essentialised in bodies or objects or things…right? The solution here might be: why not turn to the “norm” as a focus for your experimentation instead?

We can see this method playing out *some* of Candy’s subsequent work, where she engages with embodiments of “ideal” (white, blonde, pretty, and so on) femininity and amps it up.

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From “Happy Days“: Candy plays on ideas of cuteness and sexual performance

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From “Paper or Plastic“: Candy organises for her sister-wives to shoot their oppressor

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From “Nasty“: Candy blurs the distinction between stripper and Victoria’s Secret Model, with camp sensibilities

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From “A Study in Duality”: Candy thinks through the relationship between sex and death (among other things). Here she is shown wearing her feminine armour, which appears throughout many of her clips

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From “Opulence“: Candy explores issues of greed, death and power. Here Candy appears to be taking the trope “diamonds are a girls best friend” to a new level (though, it could also be argued she is tapping into imagery of Shiva)

Many of her videos contain Candy playing with being grotesque, violent, scary, overwhelming, sad, and hysterical at the same time as “showing” us her objectified body. What we gain from Candy as philosopher is an engagement with the idea of the queer potential of femininity. That is, where femininity can be made “strange”, where the expectations of sexuality and gender cannot be neatly contained. Often this borders into “cultural appropriation”, and Candy fails to cast off the overt symbols and accessories of marginalised cultures (which, really should tell us something about the “norm”).

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Candy has questionable Chola curls going on in her latest clip for “Living Out Loud” but also seems to be channelling Miley Cyrus circa 2013

Candy grew up in a remarkable context—her parents were divorced, and while her mother worked as a nurse, her father worked as the chief financial officer of Hustler magazine. Despite (or perhaps because of) this “duality” of life experiences, it appears that she has been signed to a major label and for all intents and purposes is as corporately-driven as other stars.

Herein lies one of the major problems of Candy: though she’s just like every other pop star trying to make a buck, she’s pretending she’s something “alternative”. As she stated in one interview: “We can watch the news and see what’s happening in the world or we can have our attention caught by some famous asshole in a red dress…Who cares who wore what at the Met Ball, it’s all fake bullshit. It’s a big fucking show”. The comment reveals (another) limit of Candy’s queer femininity: she thinks that somehow “putting it on” makes her more queer than those women at the Met Ball. In reality, the drag and camp culture that Candy revels in has always referenced the divas and the “assholes” in red dresses—in ways that is often about reverence and worship rather than cynicism.

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What really differentiates Candy from her contemporaries on the red carpet?

If anything, Candy’s attempts to amp up aspects of her style to border on the “obscene” is that you don’t have to do amp it up to see the queer possibilities of femininity. Appropriation of the norm shows us how very contingent and unstable the norm already is in the first place. And if we rely on strategies of “turning up the volume”, we might accidentally fix that (Met Ball) femininity as “natural” and “normal” by comparison. Where does gender stop being drag stop being gender stop being drag? Of course this is Judith Butler‘s old point, but also as RuPaul reminds us, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”. This isn’t to undermine the experience that gender is an essential part of identity. In fact, it is rather to make a case for seeing gender as at once constructed and as something that we can’t fully choose. So the theory goes, questioning gender makes space for the gender yet to come.

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Maybe this doesn’t recover Brooke Candy from her problems (she’s practically the Heidegger of the pop world). But it is a helpful case in thinking through the limits and possibilities of attempting to enact queer femininity. As it turns out, gender was never not-queer all along.

Review – Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

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Jessa Crispin

Spoiler alert: Jessa Crispin is a feminist. So, if you’re one of those people who insist on holding signs up on the Internet to the effect of “I’m not a feminist because I like doing the dishes…” etc, you’re not going to get any love here. As the title suggests, Why I Am Not A Feminist is in fact A Feminist Manifesto. But it’s not the feminist manifesto we need, and I’m not even sure it’s the one we deserve.

Aside from the many contradictions of the book (as hinted at in the title), Crispin’s work doesn’t really go into her arguments in any depth—she expects us to take her ideas largely at face value (e.g. everyone unfairly dismisses radical feminists!). Probably the most teeth-grinding part is that she also consistently—though perhaps inadvertently—suggests that “we” (her readers) are all white, middle class, straight women.

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Sceptical reading selfie

We have to read this work as a letter to the “mainstream” pink-pussy-hat wearing women that basically says, “god if even you are going to call yourself a feminist, then I don’t want to”.

The amazing thing is that Why I Am Not a Feminist pulls the oldest trick in the book to make a case for feminism: it claims that feminism has been lost. Similarly to Angela McRobbie’s (2008) Aftermath of Feminism, Crispin isn’t interested in looking at where feminism is currently articulating itself in new and dynamic ways that address some of the qualms she raises. Rather, she points to the failures of the present and the positives of the past, but in an a-historic way that doesn’t acknowledge why we are where we are.

In case you don’t have $19.99 to spare, here’s a really brief run down of her manifesto:

1. Feminism has become a lowest-common denominator identity

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Helpful: Crispin uses the term “universal feminism” to describe how feminism has been watered down to the point of becoming politically meaningless. Crispin points out that under this arrangement you could easily hypothetically wear your Dior “We should all be feminists” t-shirt and be a CEO who cuts the wages of all of her staff. I certainly agree that feminism should give up its class-collaborative obsession, and should stop seeing “feminist” as synonymous with “woman”, because it’s not actually helping to improve the lot of women’s lives.

Less helpful: Crispin insists that historically change for women has come about due to fringe groups of radical women (she cites Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer as examples) whose ideas are too “uncomfortable” for feminists today. In particular Crispin’s target of scorn are those women “still taking pole dancing classes” and similar. Here Crispin misses: a) that we need to stop making everyday women the problem through our arguments, and instead focus on everyday sexism; b) that the critiques of radical feminism that have been made should be taken seriously, because even though Greer and co make some passionate points, they also intensely dismiss transgender existence and TBH that’s not a feminism I want to sign up to. If you’re going to make the claim that we need to return to radical feminism, at least give us some reasons why, and explain how we can do this in a way that doesn’t help to justify violence against some groups of already marginalised women and gender diverse people.

2. Change doesn’t come from above 

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Helpful: Crispin points out that we should stop thinking we can change the system that keeps women oppressed, from working within, and that we should look to ways to smash the system. For too long women have attempted to make change by getting involved in the corridors of power, only to find themselves pretty comfy once on the inside. So, instead of changing the entire shebang and what is good for “the whole”, there has been a focus on the individual and what is good for “me”.

Less helpful: According to Crispin, feminists have simply lost their way along the path, and have become narcissistic and inward-looking. It couldn’t possibly be, say, the material conditions under neoliberal ideology and late capitalism that have encouraged certain modes of thinking. Women have simply bought into their own oppression. Without an analysis of “why”, Crispin’s argument falls flat, because “the system” she is describing as the problem remains an amorphous monster that we can’t fight because we don’t actually know what it looks like or why it’s there.

3. We need to be smart with how we use our activist energy

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Helpful: Crispin points out that sometimes when we find ourselves focusing on small instances of oppression, we can miss the bigger system of oppression that is at play. In particular, fighting people (she calls them “Twitter bros”) online can be exhausting and doesn’t achieve a whole lot. She also suggests that instead of assuming that oppression happens along a horizontal axis (where I oppress you sometimes, and other times you oppress me), we should see power as more hierarchically distributed (so, where I have for example a sexist idea, that is only because that idea has come from above).

Less helpful: Crispin adds further fuel to the fire of those who would dismiss feminists as merely being unhappy and causing unnecessary fuss. Crispin calls out “call out” culture for its misdirected outrage, but throws the baby out with the bathwater by lumping a lot of things into the “petty concerns” category. For example she briefly cites one case of calling-out a “second wave feminist who was unfamiliar with the relatively new phrase ‘intersectional'” as problematic. Since Kimberele Crenshaw came up with the idea in 1989 I’m not really buying the “relatively new” argument. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be skeptical of how intersectionality is sometimes deployed to further individualise rather than find common bonds, BUT Crispin’s dismissiveness here wreaks of disengagement with feminism outside of her immediate milieu. Where Crispin argues against “outrage culture”, she overlooks the amazing work of feminists such as Sara Ahmed who have been talking about the value of “feminist killjoy” for years.

4. Feminists don’t need to focus on men 

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Helpful: In parts of her book, Crispin suggests that structural oppression affects both men and women, and argues that we all need to work together to dismantle “the system”.

Less helpful: Despite her overall goal of radical social transformation, Crispin is strangely dismissive of men. In one part of the book she addresses male readers directly: “You as a man are not my problem. It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you”. While I totally get the frustration that Crispin expresses here, it undermines her point that we should work for change on the basis of core political values (i.e. needing revolution) rather than identity (i.e. identifying as a woman).

5. We can’t change the world with our haircuts

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Helpful: Crispin argues that lifestyle politics—seeing the way we style our hair, the things we eat, etc, as having political effect—isn’t going to challenge the wider system that oppresses us. This is a vital argument to be had in a world where, for example, gardening is more popular than ever but there is little action on climate change. I say this even though I am vegetarian and insist on having long hair as a queer woman, so, you know.

Less helpful: Crispin isn’t generous to feminism, or women in general for that matter.

tumblr_ngg27iYud21u54vw6o1_250Ultimately Crispin’s book is a let down because after the whole Hilary Clinton thing, it feels like we do need another articulation of feminism, one that more explicitly engages with questions around capitalism and neoliberalism. Why I Am Not A Feminist unfortunately doesn’t go there.

Crispin makes some good points but it could have been that much better if she spent less time berating contemporary women and instead looked at how we can build on what we already have. In arguing for a narrow return to (some vague form of) radical feminism, she not only misses engaging with activism happening right now but she also overlooks over a century of interventions in mainstream feminist debates, which have come from women of colour, lesbian and bisexual women, working class women, trans women, and disabled women, not to mention *cough* Marxist revolutionary women.

Overall Crispin provides some useful food for thought, not the least of which is that when we’re articulating our manifestos we really need to look beyond ourselves.

Katy Perry Does Critical Theory

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Illuminati realness, or reference to Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’? You decide.

There is little doubt now that we are living in a strange time, a time where Teen Vogue talks Black Lives Matter, Elle Magazine quotes Russian revolutionaries, and the dictionary trolls the President of the United States. Activist politics is filtering into mainstream spaces in strange and uneven ways. This week one such event was the release of Katy Perry’s video for her new song ‘Chained to the Rhythm‘, which is, in fact, a hilariously direct engagement with Critical Theory.

Critical Theory emerged in the mid twentieth century, and involved theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer taking up strands of Marxist and Psychoanalytic thought, to provide a critique of society and mass culture. In particular, Adorno was very concerned with what he called the “culture industry“, that is, entertainment consumed by the masses that works to keep people controlled and complicit under capitalism. Adorno believed that popular culture numbs people so that they are not able to fully realise the conditions of their own oppression.

This is exactly the critique of society that Perry presents in her new video.

With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Perry’s video is set in an amusement park called “Oblivia”, where everyone is either viewing the world through their iPads or shuffling behind others toward mundane rides such as a literal hampster wheel. The setting notably connects up with Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous claim that “amusement has become an extension of labor under late capitalism”.

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Gosh KP, what on earth does it mean?!

But with increasing nuance throughout the clip, Perry manages to address some of the most pressing political issues of our time. These include:

1. The financial crisis and the American dream

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The first ride Perry visits is a reference to the financial crisis of 2008 that saw the mortgage market in the USA bottom-out. It’s not a fun ride—you sit in a tiny house and get jolted in the air once you’re locked in the house. It’s almost like Perry read Lauren Berlant’s book ‘Cruel Optimism‘ which talks about how people invest in dreams of a better future (i.e. the American dream) but that this belief is actually a cruel and toxic attachment.

2. Heteronormativity

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The dream drop ride shows heterosexual couples enter, surrounded by a white picket fence. Perry comes along and smells the roses on the fence, only to prick her finger, realising that the roses have stems of barbed wire. In a reverse-Sleeping-Beauty move, this finger prick helps to wake Perry up, and we realise that the deep sleep represented in fairytales is in fact about succumbing to a heteronormative life. Here, Perry functions as a queer character who can’t quite meet the normative standards that allow her to fully enjoy the park. As Perry is also the star of the piece, we are called to rethink the “barbed” reality of heterosexually “normal” life.

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On this note, we should pause here to consider how Perry’s partner on the love-rollercoaster is an incredibly camp man in a glitter shirt.

3. Racism and the Trump Travel Ban 

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One of the next rides that Perry stumbles across involves black couples and single people getting flung over a fence/wall. Here Perry is offering a direct critique of the Trump administration’s white heterosexist rulings.

4. War and nuclear holocaust

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Park-goers walk around carrying fairyfloss that looks like broccoli, that we later realise are actually mushroom clouds. Also this ride:

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Bleak.

5. Climate change and environmental degradation 

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“Fire Water” is Perry’s most obscure reference—or, perhaps her most literal. Perry visits a gas station where the petrol is actually water but that water is on fire. There are also sailors. It’s pretty great. It appears to be a reference to climate change (the world is heating up) but also fracking (which can cause river fires!), and on that note, it is also clearly about Standing Rock.

6. The nuclear family and false appearances

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Toward the end of the song Perry sits in a crowd wearing 3D glasses, watching a family perform in front of a TV screen. Here Perry challenges the charade of the perfect nuclear family, and the societal focus on the heterosexual couple. The retro styling of the entire clip also gains greater meaning here, as we see that this world is also one where women are cast back into the stereotype of the 1950s housewife. But in Perry also adopting this dress (reminiscent of the Jetsons) she is entertaining a form of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag“. That is, a way of embodying the past in order to displace the “present”, to help us question our own progress narratives.

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The imagery of this scene also, remarkably, directly references Guy Debord’s 1967 work ‘Society of the Spectacle‘, which laments the way everything in society has become about consumption and appearances. One of Debord’s proposed tactics for interrupting such a society is called “detournement“—basically hijacking cultural products and subverting their meaning, also known as culture jamming. That Perry would reference (or perhaps recuperate) Debord would, I imagine, have him rolling in his grave.

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The cover of Debord’s classic

During the same scene, Skip Marley emerges out of the television screen, and in a direct critique of imperialism, the ruling class and capitalist society, sings: “Time is ticking for the empire/The truth they feed is feeble/As so many times before/They greed over the people/They stumbling and fumbling and we’re about to riot”.

After this Perry dances around confusedly for a bit, before running and then stopping on a treadmill, giving us a completely alarmed stare down the camera.

When I first heard the song—which includes lyrics such as “So comfortable, we live in a bubble, a bubble” and “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”—I was annoyed that Perry would take a swipe at ordinary people, as if everyone is just stupid and thoughtless. This seemed perfectly in line with the desperately elitist condemnation by Clinton of Trump supporters as “deplorables” in 2016, which only served to alienate rather than mobilise people. The original critical theory work from Adorno and others is similarly irksome in its extreme disdain for “low culture” enjoyed by the many, versus more intellectual “high culture”. As I see it, to condemn mass culture and in turn the “cultural dupes” who consume it, is to be radically ungenerous to the circumstances and experiences of the people involved.

But here’s where Perry manages to one-up Adorno. What makes Perry’s engagement more dynamic, is the way she places herself in the world of Oblivia. Rather than being a snobby outsider, she constantly refers to herself in the lyrics (through the use of “we”), and depicts herself in the video, as being caught up in oblivion similarly to everyone else. While she gradually becomes more “woke” than the other inhabitants of the theme park, she is consistently shown in a state of ignorant bliss just as unaware as everyone else. Here Perry manages to resolve the philosophical problem posed by Slavoj Zizek who suggests that it is false to think one can be authentically “outside” of a relation to culture. Perry doesn’t pretend to be outside of popular culture in an elitist way because she just physically can’t be…because this is a pop music video! That Marley emerges out of the television at the end also perhaps hints that Perry thinks critical ideas can come out of popular culture as much as you can also be “chained to the rhythm”. Presumably she’s hoping her work will woke you too.

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Marley climbs out of the TV

While the irony of all of this should give you a lot of LOLs it does also beg the question as to whether this is really culture-jamming or merely the selling-back to us of critiques of culture. My sense is that it is almost certainly both (Perry is making money out of this after all), and that it certainly won’t be a Katy Perry video that starts the revolution (unless she keeps up her Brit Awards antics of course).

But I also don’t think it’s bad—in fact, it should be taken as an overwhelmingly positive sign that there is a current mood in daily life that is about being wildly vocal and “about to riot”. As Perry and Marley suggest, “they woke up the lions”. Sure, some of those lions are totally bizarre pop stars, but it also means it’s a jungle out there…

This Jumpsuit Won’t Save Your Life

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The logo of RDS

Sometime last year I stumbled across the “Rational Dress Society“—a Chicago-based fashion/art duo, whose claim to fame is the production of a jumpsuit that promises to help “reject the signs of class, race and gender that are inscribed onto our daily interactions”. Their successful 2014 Kickstarter sported a Wes-Anderson-ish explainer video of a jumpsuit clad model who asks the audience, “What stands between you and revolution?” and answers, “Nothing.” The video implores viewers to reject other fashion in favour of the jumpsuit (“available in 48 sizes”), as an exercise in counter-fashion designed to unite everyone under the same style.

 

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An image from the Rational Dress Kickstarter page

As an academic in gender studies, naturally I wanted in on this so-called “ungendered monogarment“. I bit the bullet with the American exchange rate and shipping(!), ordered one, and promised myself I’d wear it for a full month to see how liberating wearing a practical, daily uniform could be. I’d record the process, do a study of my experiences. I imagined how I’d explain it at work, to my students. Maybe I really would feel liberated. My girlfriend kept asking me how and when I’d wash it, but I’d just smile. I imagined the Rational Dress Society would say You don’t need to wash clothes when you’re free from all that social malarky.

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Me in the moments prior to trying on the jumpsuit (I was trying to capture the supposed tyranny of “non-rational” dressing)

Twelve weeks later—and after sending in some measurements—my hipster singlesuit arrived in the mail. I feverishly stripped off to jump into it. Despite my extreme skepticism that a single garment could free me from oppression, I was genuinely excited to try something on that was made specifically for my body, that would finally fit, unlike all those sad things I’d previously ordered off the Internet (you know how it is: the too-small shoes, the dress that you have to squeeze into like a sausage, the pants that fall down around your bum).

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Moments later in the sad sad jumpsuit

But alas. I had never been in a more ill-fitting piece of clothing in my life. It was precisely all of the measurements that I didn’t have to record that were the problem—the width of my calves, for example. I was intensely confronted with the fact that my body was “ill-proportioned”, that is, that even with 48 sizes on offer finding something that fit long but thick legs and wide hips but a tiny waist and chest, was impossible.

Ironically it was the one piece of clothing that promised freedom from gender that made me feel the non-conformity of my body on a visceral level. I’d had a sneaking suspicion for some time that clothing wasn’t the key to gender liberation, and this seemed to be some proof in the pudding.

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Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games: femme-ing it up in the revolutionary compound

Cards on the table: my whole PhD was basically an extremely long-winded answer to the question “will feminine styles exist after the revolution?”, and my vehement answer was yes.

Of course we could debate what “feminine styles” means. But my main point was that people have attachments to gendered ways of presenting themselves, and that even though feminine beauty regimes and ways of dressing aren’t biologically-inherent (girls don’t naturally like pink and indeed, norms of gender are social), that doesn’t mean makeup and dresses and glitter and all those things would just wither away if we finally managed to smash capitalism. In the liberated world of gender that I hope for, your biology wouldn’t determine your gender or how you had to present yourself, but, there’d be a hell of a lot of room for experimentation, switching between many genders, and playing with presentation and costumes (much like when you’re a child, and you get to play dress ups).

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Me before I got “schooled”

Part of my attitude on this question, is that I’m just so damn obsessed with and attached to femininity. For me it certainly wasn’t a “natural” inclination—until I went to school, I was pretty androgynous, with a home-made haircut, adorned in skivvies and flannelette. As the child of a radical single mother, I was discouraged against buying into traditional femininity. But once I got to school, it was on. I wanted to fit in as a “girl”.

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I missed the memo that said how big bows were meant to be

So my relationship to femininity started from a difficult place. But as I became obsessed with plastic jewels and wearing tutus over my track pants, god, it was fun. I started dressing by theme—my favourite of which was my “licorice allsorts” outfit, which was just me in all the neon clothes I had from the op shop, punctuated by black socks and a black hair tie. I would also cut the waist ties off my dresses and get my mum to sew them into headbands for me so I could match from head to toe. And, I held not one but three makeup parties, where the aim was to use the eyeshadows and pencils to draw as many cool things on each other’s faces as possible. Sure, I missed the mark on conventional femininity, but it was those elements of feminine style—the campy, glittery, over-the-top aspects of femininity—that won my heart. So, when I think of a liberated future, I tend not to think of monochrome jumpsuits that eliminate difference.

But I’ve had to debate my perspective with a lot of people.

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At the Miss America Protest

Indeed, the history of feminism has been haunted by the conundrum of fashion and self-presentation. Infamously, women in the USA in 1968 protested the Miss America pageant, which included (among other things) throwing items of women’s clothing, makeup and magazines into a “freedom trash can”. Some say that this is where the myth of the “bra-burning” feminist began, though it must be noted that despite the desire of protesters to burn the contents of the bin, the fire department refused a permit. While the stunt was great for getting attention on the burgeoning women’s movement, one of the downsides of the event was that the protestors targeted the Miss America contestants themselves, not just the pageant organising body. They held signs which called the women sheep, and, actually paraded sheep—again, pretty cool, but a bad message.

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Sheep at the Miss America Protest

This focus on the bodily and stylistic pursuits of women themselves reached fever pitch in the 1980s, with radical feminists such as Sheila Jeffreys claiming that wearing makeup was akin to self-harm as per the United Nations guidelines on torture. The story had morphed from the kind of points earlier feminists made about the negative expectations placed on women around social roles and bodily maintenance, to one where women themselves were really the problem, for being such dummies about their oppression. As Ariel Levy’s best-selling book of 2005 argued, in a surprise twist it turned out that women were really the worst sexists of them all, the “female chauvinist pigs”.

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Who could forget the Spice Girls in this story of femininity 

However, in response to these particular strands of feminism, so too was there a concerted effort (mostly in the 1990s, but let’s be real, we’re still living with the aftermath) to argue for the empowering and liberatory effects of “girl power“. The problem with this version of feminism wasn’t just that it was instantly recuperated into a market that sold it back to us, but that it claimed that femininity was empowering. This form of feminism has insidiously morphed into the celebrity feminism that we are pummelled with today, that suggests feminism means basically anything to anyone, as if it’s just another beautiful choice under neoliberal capitalism.

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From the Rational Dress Society Instagram page

I don’t think we have to get into this binary way of thinking about feminine styles, to make such big claims about it being The Worst Thing Since Torture, or flipping right over and saying it is The Best Thing Ever. At the very least, it’s interesting. Gender expectations are painful, but gender, in more general terms, doesn’t have to be.

So I returned the jumpsuit, and felt all the better for having that tyrannical object of sameness out of my life.